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US, South Korea Remove Trade Obstacle With Beef Deal

  • Kurt Achin

South Korean officials have publicly announced details of a deal to resume imports of United States beef. South Korea cited health concerns when it banned U.S. beef five years ago. The issue has been a major source of friction in the two allies' trade relationship, and could have threatened the passage of a sweeping free trade deal. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

Just 24 hours before South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was scheduled to meet with President Bush at Camp David, South Korea said Friday it would relax import restrictions on U.S. beef.

Assistant South Korean Agriculture Minister Min Dong-seok announced details of the deal, reached after months of wrangling between both countries' trade negotiators.

He says the two sides agreed on sanitary conditions that permit the import of most beef parts - including those with bones - from U.S. cattle under 30 months old.

That is seen as a crucial first step in opening South Korea's beef market, which the government slammed shut in December 2003 after a single case of mad cow disease was discovered in the United States. South Korea began resuming imports of boneless U.S. beef last April, then re-imposed the complete ban after bones were found in several shipments.

South Korea has cited disease fears as the main reason for the restriction. Media campaigns sponsored by South Korean beef producers have implied for years that U.S. beef is dangerous.

However, U.S. officials say U.S. beef is safe - an assertion effectively backed last year by the United Nations World Organization for Animal Health. U.S. beef producers have described the ban as a thinly-veiled form of protectionism, by a nation that was once the world's third largest importer of U.S. beef.

Friday's deal sets up a framework for the gradual but complete resumption of U.S. beef imports, from cattle of any age. U.S. lawmakers had warned Congress may reject a massive trade liberalization deal between the United States and South Korea if the beef issue is not resolved.

In a new release welcoming Friday's deal, the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea predicted the "U.S. agriculture industry and U.S. business community will now come out in full force" behind the free trade pact. The deal lowers trade barriers on everything from automobiles to financial services, and is expected to fuel a roughly $20 billion increase in commerce between the two countries.

U.S. beef is expected to be on store shelves here in South Korea within one or two months.